The Christmas tree, mistletoe, the fireplace, giving gifts: they're all well known symbols of Christmas. But they haven't always been part of the Christmas tradition. The origins of some of these symbols might surprise you.
Margaret Visser is a cultural anthropologist. For many years she was a guest on CBC Radio, pulling back the curtain on the origins of everyday things to expose how everything from salt to having a bath to how you arrange your hair or eat dinner are rooted in history and tradition.
In 1984 Margaret Visser talked to Morningside's Peter Gzowski about the fireplace. She says the hearth represents continuity and connection. Before the fireplace every home had an open hearth in the middle of its main living area. Its open shape suggests the family circle and its central location the heart of the home, the place to show hospitality. The fireplace takes on even more importance at Christmas, when we decorate it. In ancient times you had to keep it burning to symbolize the continuity of Christmas and the bond ofcommunity. The hearth opens to both heaven and earth, symbol of the connection between family, community, earth and the heavens.
Giving gifts goes with Christmas too. Visser looked at cultures where giving is way better than getting. Your mother might have told you that "re-gifting" is tacky, but it has a long and honourable tradition. In many cultures passing along the same gift isn't a shameful secret, but an honourable way to pass on stories and a great way to connect to your community. The ultimate in recycling.
Then's there's mistletoe. A cute and flirtatious way to get someone to kiss you? It's more than that! For much of history mistletoe was seen as a sacred plant; it bears fruit in the winter, a sign of continuing life and a reminder that there will once again be prosperous times after the long cold winter. It also celebrates a rebellious spirit that has made you bring something into the house from outside. Besides all that, it allowed men and women to kiss freely, as long as they were under the mistletoe of course!
Margaret Visser has written six books about the anthropology and history of everyday life. She was a Massey lecturer in 2002 when she talked about the role of fate in our lives.